The Idea Man

by Ethan G. Salwen

Aaron Goodman

March 01, 2010 — he handsome, well dressed middle-aged man on the operating table glares up with a mix of anger and resignation. He does not seem to be in any pain, nor terrified. This is interesting considering that the rubber-gloved hands hovering near his head are finishing up the grizzly task of suturing together his defiantly pursed lips. Wearing a white lab coat adorned with the iconic medical symbol—the herald’s wand with two snakes wrapped around it—presumably this unwilling patient is a doctor. Nothing else is clear in this image by Aaron Goodman, a New York-based photographer specializing in editorial and commercial illustration.

Goodman’s vision is more fascinating than horrifying and it strongly begs the question: What exactly is going on here?

Goodman created this image for Time magazine to illustrate the idea that, “There are things your doctor can’t tell you, things hospitals don’t want you to know.” Once articulated, the viewer quickly appreciates the appropriateness of Goodman’s illustration: The man is a doctor, but the mystery hands also represent a doctor and the anonymous power of the hospital. The roles in the image are intentionally fuzzy; the central act of silencing is crystal clear.

Goodman has contributed work to more than 55 national magazines, including ESPN, Sports Illustrated, Time and Wired, illustrating numerous covers. Commercial clients include Absolut Vodka, Dixie/Georgia Pacific, and Black and Decker. Goodman says that his illustrations for editorial assignments tend be dark and disturbing; his commercial work bright and cheerful. Dark or bright, all of Goodman’s creations share a strong sense of cinematographic storytelling, without providing enough information to decode what the story is. This is intentional on Goodman’s part. “It all comes down to the idea behind the image,” he says. “The idea is absolutely the most important thing.”

Powered by Ideas
Goodman’s images feature intriguing impossibilities of all sorts. A happy businessman wearing roller skates and strapped to a rocket readies for blast off from a suburban neighborhood (above). A dark-suited man with mirrored sunglasses emerges cautiously from beneath a single key on a computer keyboard (pg. 25). Somehow Goodman’s images read as completely plausible even though they are clearly fantasies. Photographic realism meets painterly surrealism. But while Goodman’s visions might strike the viewer as surreal in the emotional sense, they are not in the artistic sense. Surreal art aims to bewilder the viewer, evoking emotions and raising perplexing, unanswerable questions. Goodman’s images communicate concrete ideas. However, those ideas are only revealed in the context of the editorial stories and the commercial advertisements for which they were created.

Before heading into the studio to capture the multiple images he will composite together in postproduction, Goodman first boils each assignment down into one clear idea that he articulates in one sentence or less. He then relies heavily on sketching to discover the best visual solution, sometimes penciling off as many as a dozen before showing the first round of three or four to a client. To fully appreciate the success of Goodman’s work, it is critical to know the driving idea that provides the genesis for each image. A number are listed on his Web site (www.aarongoodmanphotography.com), along with final concept sketches.

“Just because you’re paranoid doesn’t mean you’re not being watched” is the idea driving the visual story for the sunglass-wearing man emerging from the keyboard (see opposite page), which Goodman created for SmartMoney magazine. The concept behind the roller-skating businessman traveling by rocket (see pg. 21) was, “A busy schedule demands a fast way to work,” for You24 magazine. Again and again in his work (he completes more than 70 assignments a year) Goodman proves his inventive ability to communicate all manner of ideas in profoundly engaging, intelligent images.

“My drawing skills are really bad,” he confesses with a laugh. Clearly it does not matter. What matters is how uncannily his simple sketches match the content of his final photographic images. “The most successful images I create are those in which I have exactly in my head what I want to produce in the studio,” Goodman says. “Of course there’s room for learning from experimentation, but this learning rarely applies to the shot you were working on.” He explains that meeting tight editorial deadlines and keeping track of the message is like an intricate puzzle. “The image has got to match the headline exactly, not just the story, and so I can’t suddenly change something.”

Icons Rule, Not Digital
Goodman describes his style as “hyper real,” but notes that he actually stays away from any one visual style in favor of best highlighting the idea at hand. “What I like to do is to break things down into icons,” Goodman explains. “When you live in place and time there is a shared memory. When I’m thinking about how to make an image, I’m thinking about iconography. What is the icon for an idea of something that the most people will relate to?” Goodman gives the example of a sardine can, into which he needed to stuff a number of people for one image. “I knew it was important to use a classic tin sardine can with the lid that rolls back,” he says. “You know. The one from cartoons. Well, it turns out those sardine cans haven’t existed for 20 years. But it doesn’t matter. To us, that’s what a sardine can looks like.”

While Goodman thrives and evolves creatively in relation to expanding technical possibilities of digital photography, the story of Goodman’s career makes it clear that the soul of his work does not depend on complex post-production manipulation. Enamored with the idea of becoming a photojournalist in high school, Goodman attended the Syracuse New School of Communications, graduating in 1991. He says that he came to realize the emotional demands of photojournalism were not for him. He landed in Baltimore after graduation, working for Newhouse News Service, a newspaper syndication service owned by Newhouse Newspapers, shooting editorial portraits and working the picture desk—open to future possibilities.

“I fell into photo illustration completely by accident,” he recalls. A friend working for a magazine in Baltimore asked Goodman if he would produce two-inch square icons for monthly columns. “That is when I first started to think about how to illustrate something photographically,” he recalls. His solution was to hit the hobby shop for supplies. He constructed little scenes or dioramas in a process that he likens to decorating model train sets. “I photographed them ‘straight,’ and I then used all kinds of alternative darkroom techniques to move the images a little farther away from ‘straight’ photographs and more towards illustration.”

In 1996, three of Goodman’s pieces won a place in the Communication Arts photography annual. “Oh!” he recalls, thinking of the pivotal moment. “Maybe this is what I should be doing.” Soon he was receiving monthly assignments from Men’s Health, and in 1998 he moved to New York to be closer to his growing number of clients. He had completely abandoned complex darkroom manipulations by 1997 in favor of Photoshop; he fully replaced film scanning for digital capture in 2004.

Capturing Ideas
It takes Goodman three days to a week and a half to complete each illustration, although this includes a tremendous amount of project overlap. “Ninety-five percent of what I shoot is on white seamless,” Goodman says, noting that, shooting in a small studio, he finds the color cast from green and blue backgrounds problematic when compositing. While he aims to shoot every picture element himself, he does turn to stock imagery for items that are not the “main, driving elements,” as well as for idea-critical backgrounds. “At heart, I most definitely am a photographer,” he explains. “I prefer to shoot every little thing.”

Goodman is currently using the manual Hasselblad V System 503CW with a Phase One P25 back, capturing with Capture One software. “I try to have the background mocked up and displayed on my monitor when I shoot the models,” he says. “Capture One software allows us to layover the different elements to match up the lighting and, much more important, the perspective.” With the image planned out precisely, Goodman’s work in Photoshop is relatively straightforward compositing, with his focus on ensuring that all light sources match precisely.

Goodman says that he appreciates how new technologies allow him to simplify his process while expanding his vision. “I’ve worked on images that we’ve spent $25,000 to make and thought, ‘Um, that’s nice.’ Then, I’ve made images for less than $1000, and thought ‘Yes! That’s awesome!’ It’s always nice to have the big budget to make your pictures, but money doesn’t make great pictures. Ideas do.”

New Frontiers in Post-production Services
Goodman is currently developing a new studio that will focus solely on offering retouching, postproduction and consulting services. Through Wind-Up Digital (www.windupdigital.net), Goodman says he is excited to put his 15 years of experience to work helping other photographers, magazines and ad agencies, with the eventual goal of attracting entertainment advertising work. “I want to help them plan and produce complex digital shoots in ways that will make the postproduction easier and more efficient,” he says. “Just like in my own work, it’s all about how to best communicate a specific message through imagery.”


Ethan G. Salwen is an independent photographer and writer based in Buenos Aires, Argentina. He specializes in Latin American cultures, and also covers a wide variety of topics for professional photographers including digital technology, marketing techniques and industry trends. Salwen received his training in photography at Rochester Institute of Technology. Visit his blog at www.aftercapture.com.

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